The aerospace industry has always been in the business of doing the impossible. Starting with the Wright Brothers, Octave Chanute, and later aviation pioneers such as Chuck Yeager, Yuri Gagarin and Neal Armstrong; all of these people started out attempting to do something considered impossible. In the business of aerospace it is almost always about innovation because innovation is the key ingredient when dealing with the impossible. The ability to fabricate prototype parts rapidly and accurately is just one advantage that 3D printing offers aerospace businesses, in particular those that manufacture. Let’s take a look at that and some other reasons why aerospace and 3D printing work so well together.
1. Prototyping – This has always been cited as a strength of 3D printing. For aerospace it is doubly so. Parts can be fabricated, tested, modified and recreated in rapid succession. In the demanding environment of aerospace, this is key as designs are refined and perfected. If the world of spec’ing, drawing and machining, these iterative cycles can take months. 3D helps the business get to the production version faster and more reliably.
2. 3D printing is ideally suited to low volume production. Most aerospace projects do not involve building thousands of copies. To that end, 3D printing fits into the normal production schedule associated with many aerospace projects.
3. Many aerospace products feature high levels of configurability. The F-35 program in the USA is an example. The aircraft is built to individual specifications from the Air Force, Navy and Marine variants. Additionally, other governments buying the product have their own unique needs. 3D printing is an ideal way to increase the mass variation or customisation of a product. For example, the F35 pilot helmet is specific to the person flying the airplane. Aerospace needs that mass customisation flexibility.
4. 3D printing helps promote longer product lifespans. Production of replacement parts for older systems had to be done in advance and carried in inventory. 3D printing allows you to maintain those parts in the form of digital files to be produced as needed.
5. 3D printing provides improved flexibility in production schedules. Maintaining the retooling instruction within digital pattern files means the retooling for different products is dramatically sped up.
6. Reduced waste. 3D printing is also called additive manufacturing meaning the individual part is built up, rather than carved out of, the material used to fabricate it. This means no shavings on the shop floor, no wasted material, just the product itself remains at the conclusion of the fabrication phase. 3D printing is not new and for many years, its biggest drawback was material used to actually build the object being printed. Now, more metals and more metal type fabrication processes can be emulated using 3D technology. The result is fabricated parts with much higher tensile strength. The notion that 3D only builds flimsy plastic models is long out of date. Today’s 3D printing is producing numerous real world, high-stress parts including firearms, turbo jet fan blades and other engine parts.